Thailand – Before mass tourism

Leave a comment Standard

This photograph is about ten years old. I rediscovered it when searching for something else.

Erecting scaffolding in Thailand, many years ago. Seldom seen nowadays.

At the time as I took this photograph I remember photographing monkeys playing on the telephone wires that rang from pole to pole along the street and musing on the risks to life one encountered in that lovely country.

Things have come a long way since then, I know, but up-country the same risky scaffolding can be found. It’s to be hoped that the workers are as nimble as these ones were ten years ago.

The Cassowarry!

Comments 4 Standard

Featured image credit: andyasskwoo from Pixabay

It’s one of those OMG moments when something I’d been told about but could scarcely believe, actually happened.

I wrote about the Australian Cassowarry in a post a few months ago and now today I read that the bird has actually killed someone.

Image by Anja Schröder from Pixabay

The cassowary, a large, flightless bird native to Australia and PNG, kept as a breeding bird, had attacked and killed its Florida owner on his own property in Gaineville, Alachua County, when he fell last Friday. It is thought the bird killed his victim using its long 10cm. dagger-like claws.

Cassowaries can be 1.8 metres (6 ft.) tall and the website of the San Diego Zoo describes them as the worlds most dangerous birds and says that it can slice open any predator with a single swift kick.

So, our Australian guide wasn’t just winding me up when he told me about them. Sorry, I misjudged you, Ray!

PROVENCE – Villages & Towns

Comments 4 Standard

I have an urge to go to Provence again.  I think it’s because my lavender is thriving this year and that the rosemary, thyme, sage and oregano are flourishing as never before that makes me want to immerse myself in the pungent scent of wild herbs crushed underfoot and the juniper, golden broom, and cistus that cover the hills of Provence.

I like the journey there too, on the Eurostar from London (less than 6 hours): with a change at Paris, there is enough time to enjoy a leisurely meal to get the trip off to a good start.   The views from Paris down to Avignon of tiny, half-deserted medieval villages perched on steep hillsides, red geraniums and lime-green ferns tumbling over balconies, fertile valleys of yellow corn and wheat, occasionally highlighted with a blaze of red poppies like a Van Gogh landscape, and the occasional field of wild irises and lavender, always make me happy that I’ve taken the train to this corner of France.

Palais du Pape

Avignon:  The best viewpoint is from the Gardens of Rocher des Doms above the Palais des Papes.  The gardens are not worth the trip for themselves, but there are benches on which to sit to take in the peacocks and the panoramic views over the entire city and the surrounding areas. 

If you visit only one monument, make it the Papal Palace, the Palais des Papes, which includes the Popes’ private apartments with some fabulous frescoes, and is one of the musts of Avignon.  This emblem of the city, an awe-inspiring monument to the importance of Avignon in the Christian world of the Middle Ages was built in the 1300s by two popes – Benedict XII and his successor, Clement V.   Avignon 10It was to become the biggest gothic edifice in all of Europe and is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with the episcopal buildings and the Saint Bénézet Bridge.  Palais du Pape, Golden Madonna

Next to the palace is the Notre-Dame des Doms Cathedral, built in 1150, with the statue of the Virgin Mary, entirely covered in gold, 6 metres high and weighing 4500 kilos, protecting the city from the bell tower.

The historic centre radiates from the Place de l’Horloge, a popular square bordered by cafés and restaurants. Just like the Place du Palais higher up you could spend the day just watching the street performers.  Here is the City Hall built in the mid 19th century over a former cardinal’s palace.  Next to it is the 19th-century municipal theatre which houses the Avignon opera.

Avignon street scene

Avignon is a city full of ancient dwellings, museums, churches, chapels and art galleries and you can easily fill a week here without leaving the city but it also has a hippy, boho area.  In the Rue des Teinturiers, a delightful cobblestone street dating from the Middle Ages, the street is lined with wine bars and small restaurants, and artists and musicians mingle here in a village-like ambience.  Then there is bourgeois Avignon on one side of the main avenue, the Rue de la Repúblic, a chic designer clothing and luxury shops area.  The other side of Repúblicc leads to the Place Pie and the Halles, the famous covered market and meeting place for the people of Avignon.

Sur le Pont de Avignon on a windy day.

But most people come to Avignon to see the famous bridge, the St. Bénézet Bridge, built around 1180 (by a simple shepherd, or so goes the story) to link the city to Villeneuve-les-Avignon.  Over the years, war and flooding took their toll on the bridge and today, the 12th-century St. Nicholas chapel along with four arches of the bridge are all that remain of the original structure. 

Avignon Bridge 2

The historic region (Luberon) between Aix-en-Provence and Avignon is often cited as being the most beautiful in France, rolling hills streaked with lavender and medieval villages perched on craggy rocks.

Gordes 3

Villages like Gordes, a compact hilltop town at the foot of the Vaucluse Mountains which is one of the trendiest places to live in Provence.  The ancient Borie village, an impressive complex of stone houses which was once the homes of shepherds and agricultural workers before the industrial revolution, was lovingly restored in the 1970s by a team of archaeologists and locals.  There are 300 of these in Gordes.

Rousillon with its distinctive ochre earth

Roussillon:  This area has to be visited, if only for the startling ochre colour of the earth as it is located in the very heart of the biggest ochre deposits in the world.  These natural pigments are used throughout the village, the walls of the houses being washed with the traditional ochre rendering, the many different oxides in the ochre sands combining in countless shades.

Rousillon cemetery (ochre tombs)

Rousillon cemetery

The hills are streaked with it, and an Ochre Trail has been laid out and marked.

Ochres was mined by the Romans

Rousillon, the village

A Village in the Luberon

during their settlement of Provence but only became a widespread, industrial product in the late 18th century when Jean-Etienne Astier had the idea of washing the ochre-laden sands to extract the pure pigment. Today, though natural ochre faces strong competition from synthetic pigments, it remains unrivalled for use in certain applications.

Blue shutters on house in Arles

Arles and Aix de Provence.  More like Spain or Italy with narrow streets and shady squares it is the gateway to the Camargue.   Arles has a Roman theatre ringed by cobbled, medieval streets and is one of the most interesting towns in France. Arles, street scene

It was home to Van Gogh in the 1880’s and because of this the town now has a flourishing artistic centre.  Buy books on Van Gogh and postcards here which you won’t find anywhere else.  The elegant spa town of Aix is Cezanne’s own town where you can visit his workshop and take a guided tour of landmarks in the life of the painter and that of the writer, Emile Zola.

After Arles, Van Gogh went to the pretty little town of St. Remy which nestles at the foot of the magnificent Massif des Alpilles, now classified as the Parc Naturel Régional des Alpilles. St. Remy, craft shop Stroll along the boulevards under the shade of century-old plane trees in the evening and raid the boutiques and art galleries for bargains (well, perhaps not, the Provencals are not as slow as Peter Mayle made them out to be and they strike a hard bargain).

And then there is Baux de Provence, officially classified and labelled as “one of the most beautiful villages in France” (by the French).

Les Baux de ProvenceAbout 15 Kl from Arles this is a village high up in the limestone-mountains of Les Alpilles, located on a 245m. rocky plateau from where magnificent views of Arles and the Camargue can be had.  It is rich in cultural treasures, with 22 architectural monuments classified as “Historic”, including the church, chateau, town-hall, hospital, chapels, houses, doorways and many items of furniture.

Les Baux de Provence 3

The village (pop. 400) has been painstakingly restored, beautiful Renaissance façades and ‘hôtels particuliers’today serving as art galleries and museums, visited by more than one-and-a-half-million tourists a year, even though the visits must be made on foot.

Les Baux villageThe narrow streets leading up to the Citadelle des Baux are lined with bistros and restaurants with terraces hanging over the cliffs – all with views to die for.   Many of these restaurants have international reputations and offer high quality dining.

I’ve probably missed off your favourite village: this is just a sample of what you can see comfortably within a week using local buses.  Many years ago we toured the area by car but I found the local transport both easy to understand and very efficient.

Terrace cafe in Le Baux (sheer drop other side)

View to die for but below this terrace is a sheer drop. Magnificent if you have a head for heights.

Plaza de España, Seville

Comments 14 Standard

In Seville last week I had my camera stolen on the third day of my four-day break, a major blow as this time it was my zoom camera so the images I took were different to those I’d taken on my last visit – and, I like to think – better.

However, after an evening of crying into my beer, or my Rioja, I just had to get on with things and determine to be more careful in future.  The loss was my own fault.  I had the camera on a table at the Casa de Las Teresas bar, probably the most famous bar in Seville, moved to look at some pencil drawings on the wall in front of me which left the opening for an opportunist to walk by and whip the camera away.  My travelling companion had been sitting there too but was looking out through the door at something happening in the street.  It was a daring move to grab the camera from under our eyes like that.

Santa-Cruz-Area,-Seville, La Cafe Bar Teresas

Santa Cruz area, Seville. La Casa de Teresas. Taken 3 years ago.

We still had four glorious days in Seville which is a genuinely over-the-top city of bulls and flamenco, dark-eyed beauties and white-washed alleys, a blazing sun beating down from a dark blue sky and never-ending late nights.  It’s the place to go if you’ve fallen for the romance of Carmen, Hemingway’s Toreros, and the lure of castanets and cante hondo, and if you want to drink manzanilla in a white-washed bodega late at night, or ride through the dappled park in a horse and carriage.  Seville is Spain’s party town and I love it.  I was seduced by its magic a long time ago and have never recovered.

We spent all our time wandering the old streets of Santa Cruz, but we also managed to spend one afternoon at the Plaza de España, one of Seville’s show-offy bits, built for the Ibero-American Exhibition of 1929 (Expo 29) and located in Maria Louisa Park.  The following photographs were all taken 3-5 years ago.

18 10_0601

This massive building is the city’s most impressive edifice after the cathedral, for its sheer grandeur.  Some people hate it, thinking it overblown and ornate, a blot on the older Seville, but I love it.  What is certain is that no one should miss it on a trip to Andalucia’s capital, along with the many pavilions in and around the Parque Maria Luisa.

18 10_0605

The Plaza de España is a lavish Renaissance/neo-Moorish semi-circular brick building with a tower at either end (now major landmarks as they are tall enough to be visible throughout the city), and it is said to be the size of five football pitches.  In front of the building, following the curve of its façade, runs a 515-metre canal and visitors can hire boats in which to gently row around the moat, a real pleasure when the heat is intense.

18 10_0603 Elegantly curving over the moat are four bridges representing the four ancient kingdoms of Spain: Castille, Aragon, Navarre and Leon.  18 10_0604

Their supports are made of brightly painted ceramic tiles, which add an extra zing to the architecture, and in the centre of it all is the Plaza itself.

On top of the ground level portico there is a first-floor balustrade with balconies stretching along its length. Along the wall by the canal are 48 alcoves with tiled benches, one for each province of Spain, and each with a relevant tableau and map designed on colourful azulejos (painted ceramic tiles).

Malaga Pavilion

Malaga Pavilion

Coloured ceramics feature heavily around Plaza de España –  the provincial alcoves, the walls, ornate bridges and balustrades being all covered in painted tiles.

18 10_0599

The architect of this amazing edifice which swings around the plaza in a large semi-circle was Anibal Gonzalez who designed the Plaza to wow the Expo’s visitors from around Spain and Latin America, and in order to showcase Seville’s talents in industry and crafts.  Only this semi-circular pavilion remains from the Expo ’29, the others are now used as museums: the Pabellon de Bellas Artes is now the Archaeological Museum, and the Pabellon Mudejar now houses the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares.

18 10_0600

For me, the best way to approach the Plaza de España is by horse and carriage.  Touristy, I know, but a ride through Maria Louisa Park to this lavish display of Spanishness, is very Sevillana and highly recommended. Pick a carriage up near the Cathedral, or the bull-ring, and fix your price.  It’s not too expensive (a 75 minute trip around the main sights of the city will only cost you €40 so you could do that and get off at the Plaza España: if there are two or three of you that makes it very reasonable).

18 10_0591

And then it will be time for tapas again, a manzanilla or a fino.  Losing my camera didn’t make me stop going to La Casa de las Teresas because the tapas were wonderful, slivers of acorn-fed jamón serrano draped over morsels of bread, little coquinas (clams), skewers of garlicky prawns and pungent tomatoes in a garlicky sauce, washed down with Manzanillo, the delicate wine from  Sanlucar de Barrameda.  I’ll be back.

N.B.  The Plaza de España is situated inside Maria Luisa Park, near the Teatro Lope de Vega and the University.  It is also near the Torre del Oro, embarkation point for trips on the River Guadalquivir (also highly recommended) and the Hop on Hop Off bus.

Crime Fiction Festival in N. Ireland

Comments 5 Standard

To Belfast Last weekend for the Noireland International Crime Fiction Festival held in The Europa Hotel and back home laden with books by writers mostly new to me.   I realize that I have been in a rut, buying or borrowing only familiar writers, but listening to the panels of speakers at the Crime LitFest and browsing through the piles of books on the stands, I uncovered a whole new world.Noireland

And what a world I found at Noireland.  Talks and panel events took place from Friday night to late Sunday afternoon and I was able to dip in and out as I wished.   I managed to catch most of them.  They ranged from An Englishwoman, An Irishwoman and a Scotswoman walk into the Noir which brought together the witty trio of Belinda Bauer, Jo Spain and Denise Mina, to a discussion between two of the top writers in the genre, Stuart MacBride and Adrian McKinty in conversation about their writing life.

Various panels of writers took to the stage to discuss themes that ranged from The Victim, which looked at the human being at the heart of the crime, through True Crime and Podcasts, Gothic Crime, The Outsider (the loner, one of the tropes of crime fiction), Chillin’ like a Villain which explored the nature of the Villain in crime, Political Villainy, right down to our very own Brexit Means …..  And if you think it was all serious, “Catch yourself on” as they say in Belfast, this was all about the craic and the jokes fell fast and furious even as the crimes discussed were bloody and nerve-jangling.

Difficult to chose a favourite session but I think I have to put in ace position the late evening reading by actor Adrian Dunbar of two spine-tingling chapters from John Connolly’s new novel, “A Book of Bones”.   Hard though it was to disassociate the man from his TV character of DCI Ted Hastings in Line of Fire his inspired reading meant that he owned the narrator’s character within a few seconds of him starting to read.  A cliché I know, but you could hear the proverbial pin drop.

This was a masterclass in reading aloud and holding an audience, but the man is an actor and a Northern Irish citizen so he was at home.

 

Another highlight for me was Anthony Horowitz talking about his writing career which spans books for young adults, the Alex Rider books, his Sherlock Holmes novels, Foyle’s War on TV, his writing for Midsomer Murders, his James Bond novels and how he was chosen by the Fleming Estate to write these.  Fewer people will know that he is a wonderful raconteur and notable wit when on stage.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Writers like Eoin McNamee, Haylen Beck, Claire Allan, Dervla McTiernan, Stuart Turton, Gerald Brennan, Sarah Vaughn, M.J. Arlidge and Will Dean who had flown in from his home in Sweden, ranged over topics such as how they get into their victim’s heads, the human being at the heart of the crime, the extremes that motherhood can drive a woman to, and how true crimes have influenced the writing of crime novels.

Ann Cleeves in discussion

Ann Cleeves in discussion

The final session was Ann Cleeves in conversation with Brian McGilloway talking about her long career in writing and how she came to develop the characters of Jimmy Perez in Shetland, and DCI Vera Stanhope in the long-running Vera.  A fascinating insight into the workings of a true crime writer.

Part of the Bookstand

I haven’t named every writer who took part in the Festival: I have listed them below, but a special mention must go to No Alibis bookshop in Belfast without whom this would not have taken place.  The owner, David Torrans, is passionate about books, specializes in mystery and detective fiction and is involved in the community to the extent that he also uses the bookshop as a community venue for literary events and concerts, Van Morrison being just one who performed there.

Books bought from No Alibis Bookshop are free of postage in the UK so if you want to check out what’s available, log on to noalibis.com, buy a book and support an independent bookseller.  If you are in Belfast, you’ll find the shop at 83 Botanic Ave, Belfast BT7 1JL and they even open on Sunday mornings.

Eat your heart out Amazon.

Other writers appearing at the Noireland International Crime Fiction Festival and not mentioned above:

Eoin McNamee, Haylen Beck, Claire Allen, Asia MacKay, Elodie Harper, Dervla McTiernan, Stuart Turton, Laura Purcell, Caroline Lee, William Ryan, Martyn Waites, Aidan Conway, Declan Hughes, Adam Handy, Thomas Enger, Renee Knight, James Swallow, Douglas Lindsay, Mason Cross, Steve Cavanagh, Karen Hamilton, Elly Griffiths, and D.B. John.

 

WADI RUM – Jordan’s Natural Park

Comments 7 Standard

A few hours drive from Amman along the King’s Highway that cuts through the desert and you can be in the stunning nature reserve of Wadi Rum, for me the second unmissable destination in all Jordan.  Familiar to movie-goers from the David Lean film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, it was one of  the principal encampments during World War I for the attack on the Ottamans by Lawrence and the Arab Army of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite leader of the Great Arab Revolt.

Wadi Rum is a timeless place, virtually untouched by humanity and stunning in its magnificence.  The weather and the winds have carved the imposing, towering towers of rocks that surge out of the earth like skyscrapers, so elegantly described by T.E. Lawrence as “vast, echoing and God-like…”

Seven Pillars of Wisdom (2 on other side) - Copy

Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (the other 2 are on the other side)

The totally natural Wadi Rum, described by Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as “landscape that refused to be an accessory ” was a caravan route during Nabatean times, and those who trek or hike through the canyons and the red sandstone hills will come across stones and rocks inscribed with the graffiti of two thousand years ago.  I cannot vouch for the age of the graffiti below: my guide assured me that it was thousands of years old but I’m naturally sceptical when around guides so I’ll pass on that one.

Graffitti - even in the desert of Wadi Rum - Copy

Monolithic rocks surge from the desert floor to heights of 1,750 metres offering a challenge to serious mountaineers.  Less strenuous exercise like trekking or hiking in the empty spaces, offers the enjoyment of  exploring the canyons, the water holes and the 4000-year-old rock drawings in this vast wilderness.

WADI RUM

Trekkers should be well-equipped and always carry a map of the area, a compass, plenty of water, sunblock and a hat.  It is easy to get lost in this maze of mountains and desert, so it’s best to take a Bedouin guide if at all possible.

To Jordan’s credit there are no hotels in Wadi Rum, but camping is permitted.  A night spent under the star-studded sky as the sunset deepens the shadows and colours the rocks, to wake at first light to see them change again from brown to reddish-pink, is a life-affirming event you will never forget.

Although there are no cafés in the desert you may come across of the black, low-slung tents made from goat’s hair where Bedu hospitality ensures that you will be offered a refreshing cup of tea and a chance to get up close and personal with the pack animals.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Always dress modestly when visiting a Bedu area, skimpy shorts and tops will be considered disrespectful, and remember to ask permission before taking photographs of the local Bedouin.

There is a Visitor centre where the hire of guides and 4 x 4 jeeps can be made, and where bookings to spend a night in a Bedouin tent sleeping under the stars can be arranged – something everyone should do at least once in a lifetime.

Signpost Wadi Rum

Seven Pillars of Wisdom 23

AQABA – Jordan’s Red Sea Port

Comments 5 Standard

Perhaps reissuing the David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia, might attract more people to Jordan as film tourism is big business these days – witness the rush to New Zealand for the Lord of the Rings films sites and Northern Ireland and Croatia for Game of Thrones sites.  And, it’s easier for us to reach Aqaba today than it was for Lawrence when he set out across the desert with the Arab Army of Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the Hashemite leader of the Great Arab Revolt, in 1917.

Not far from Amman and set in a palm-fringed, sandy bay backed by purple coloured mountains and just a few kilometres from the border with Saudi Arabia, Aqaba boasts several excellent seafood restaurants, coral reefs that are a mecca for international divers and deep, indigo-coloured waters that teem with colourful marine life.   Some of the world’s best snorkelling and wreck diving is available at the Royal Diving Club just outside town where day membership for about fifteen dinars gets you a private beach, fresh-water swimming pool, changing rooms and a restaurant.  If you want to see the underwater wonderland but don’t want to get wet, glass bottomed boats leave from the two public beaches in the port.

However, there is a caveat.  I understand that since my visit to Aqaba, the place has somewhat deteriorated and although nothing can take away from the glorious waters and the beautiful fish, I understand that the showers and other facilities leave a lot to be desired and the Jetty has been closed off.  There is a plus side though, fewer people now use the Diving Club and you may have the place to yourself.

At one time 50,000 cars a month passed into Iraq through this Economic Free Zone but no longer.   However, the duty-free prices in Aqaba makes it an attractive place for shopping with the accent on jewellery, hand-woven rugs and carpets, finely decorated daggers and swords and the Dead Sea health products that spill out of the numerous little shops that cluster up the hilly streets.   Lapis Lazuli and turquise are especially good buys here.

The shopkeepers are busier with their worry beads than with their calculators and there is no pressure on you to buy the goods you are admiring.   No one tries to sell you a kaftan when you stop to finger the beaded silk robes outside the shop, no one offers you an immediate discount if you will just step inside, nor are there beggars importuning for your spare coins.

Beach scene 2

Aqaba is a perfect place to stop off for a day’s relaxation by the sea if you are mentally and physically tired from walking around Petra and absorbing the history of  that lovely place, and perhaps less so, walking around Amman.  I confess I went there because of the film as Lawrence of Arabia has always been one of my favourite films and I well remember the scene where Lawrence led the charge “To Aqaba” and I had to see for myself.  Not a bit like the film, of course,   But Wadi Rum didn’t disappoint (up next).